July 10, 2007
A welder from Boston makes realistic scupltures depicting boats, motorcycles, cars, and planes using discarded junk found in garbage piles, yard sales, flea markets, and dumps.
It isn't easy to take a perfectionist's approach to found-object sculpture. The first task is finding the right pieces that will help create a shell of the project, let's say a car. Next comes the daunting chore of sifting through and searching for parts and pieces that will bring the car to life—a steering wheel, headlights, a tailpipe, even dashboard components. The amount of precision and detail involved in giving life to such a complex object takes years.
That's exactly what Michael Ulman does; scratch that, what he loves. Ulman spends countless hours, days, and sometimes months searching for the perfect piece—in trash piles, yard sales, or flea markets—and then spends years patiently integrating each carefully sought item until it is part of a perfect creation.
Unlike the work of many artists who use found objects, it is difficult to pinpoint in Ulman's works the origin of the items that make up the whole. Look at "White Noise," for example. The motorcycle's tank is made from an old grain scooper, and the rear fender is a modified frying pan (see Figure 1).
"A lot of the work has been so manipulated and so changed that it's hard for people to recognize what it was at first," Ulman said.
He said there are advantages to being able to recognize various components within a structure because people enjoy doing it, but he likes the level of difficulty his sculptures present to viewers and how excited they get when they can actually find something recognizable. Ulman said it keeps people wanting to find new things.
Ulman has been a professional welder for more than 10 years, but loves having the ability to express his creativity after he punches out for the day.
"Once I go into the studio, time just goes away. Hours pass like minutes. I'll spend six hours on a tiny project that no one will see but me."
Ulman uses both gas metal arc welding (GMAW) and gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) to join together objects that he cuts or shapes to fit a design. He has a variety of tools in the workshop he shares with his father, but he also takes advantage of the generosity of his current employer, Ledgerock Welding & Fabricating, Concord, Mass., where he is allowed to utilize the shop's large table space to jig up his work, make it square, tack it together, and then take it home.
At an early age Ulman learned his appreciation for art and welding from his father, who also is a found-art sculptor. In fact, one of Ulman's first memories is helping his father hold one of his pieces while he welded them together. Today he and his father share a studio, and sometimes share knowledge of the craft.
"I've surpassed him with my ability to do certain things. My [welding] skills are much higher than his now. Right now I'm helping him more, but in the beginning I would look to him for whatever I could."
Ulman's affinity for motorcycles is evident in his artwork today. But recently his interests have expanded to other forms of transportation, including cars, boats, and planes (see Figure 2). Ulman's approach to each detail in every sculpture gives the pieces a unique, realistic appearance. For example, the cockpit of "The Smuggler" is fit with a steering wheel, throttle, gauges, and a leather-trimmed seat.
By his own admission, Ulman finds it impossible to drive by an interesting pile of trash without stopping or at least slowing down. He doesn't always find specific parts that he needs, but he does sometimes find a part that sets the wheels in motion, so to speak, for another project.
His favorite items are chainsaws, especially older models made from aluminum, and he often includes the saw's cylinders in the motorcycles that he builds.
"I'm very picky about my parts, so sometimes I'll just wait. If I don't find anything, I'll just work on something else."
Someday Ulman would like to be able to work full-time as a found-object sculptor and sell his artwork. He said it's been difficult to enter his work in galleries around Boston, citing strict size regulations as well as time limits for how long it takes to make a piece. For Ulman, though, right now is less about the money and more about the art itself.
"I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."
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